The present church of the Holy Sepulcher that houses the traditional sites of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection has had a long history of development. Although it is still essentially the Crusaders' basilica, it has suffered not only from centuries of neglect but also from earthquakes and fires, not to mention outrageous alterations. Yet in spite of its dilapidated condition it is one of the most sacred spots in the world.
The Constantinian Basilica. An archeological consideration of capital importance for the traditional identification of the Lord's tomb on this spot is the fact that the church was built on ground that already at the time of Our Lord had tombs hewn in it. One can still see inside the church, in the section reserved for the Syrian Jacobites, several ancient tombs of the kôkîm type that are purely Jewish in style. Moreover, it appears incredible that the first Christians would not have carefully preserved the memory of the site of the Resurrection.
When the Emperor Hadrian (a.d. 135) built his pagan Jerusalem, Colonia Aelia Capitolina, a high terrace was prepared and a sanctuary of Venus (Aphrodite) erected at the place where, according to Christian tradition, the sepulcher of Christ had stood. In 326, after nearly 200 years, at the command of Constantine this temple was demolished and the tomb of Christ again came to light. The Christian Emperor then instructed Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, to erect on the site at imperial expense an outstanding monument. The church was dedicated on Sept. 14, 335, and is described minutely by Eusebius, with whose help one can visualize what the building was like.
The propylaea, or entrance, was to the east, opening from the middle of the chief market street, the characteristic Roman colonnaded road that crossed the city north to south. A triple gateway forming an artistic façade was approached by a formal flight of steps and led into an atrium. This first court was surrounded by porticoes and left open to the sky. Passing through the atrium the visitor came to the basilica proper, which later was quite appropriately called the Martyrium, or the place of witnessing.
The basilica with its central nave and double side naves was similar to that of Bethlehem. The layout of the central nave was planned in relation to the chapel of St. Helena, which was and still is an elegant crypt. The cave of the Finding of the Cross was a sort of second crypt 13 steps lower. The crowning part of the basilica was the Hemisphere, as Eusebius calls it. This was a beautifully decorated semicircular apse at the western end and corresponded to the opening of the great nave.
Beyond the basilica was a second open court, where, to the south of the main axis, the rock of Calvary stood in the open air, surrounded by a grille and rising some 12 feet above the ground. The rock-cut tomb that had been the sepulcher of Christ was enclosed by a round domed building that became known as the Anastasis because it commemorated the place of the Resurrection.
Only a few fragmentary portions of these Constantinian structures remain today. However this general picture, primarily according to Eusebius but following also the indications of Cyril of Jerusalem and the description
given in Itinerarium of egeria, is confirmed by two ancient representations of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: the fourth-century mosaic in the apse of S. Pudenziana in Rome and the famous sixth-century mosaic map at Medaba.
Subsequent History. In 614, the Persians burned the Constantinian buildings. Restoration work was carried out soon after by the Patriarch Modestus in far simpler style but along the same general lines of the previous buildings. In 935 a mosque was built on the site of the exterior atrium of the church, and in 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the church itself. He ordered the demolition of the Holy Sepulcher, so that very little can have remained of Our Lord's tomb. Hakim's successors showed more tolerance, and Constantine Monomachus (1048) was able to reconstruct the cave in masonry, obliterating, however, the last trace of the natural state of the tomb.
The Crusaders found Monomachus's timber-domed rotunda over the Holy Sepulcher, an oratory on Golgotha where the summit of the rock was still bare and the crypt of St. Helena. Constantine's basilica had been left in ruins. They built a Romanesque church, which was consecrated on July 15, 1149. It covered beneath its roof both the rock of Calvary and the interior Constantinian court. The building was erected against the rotunda and the architects were scrupulously respectful of the vestiges of the past.
The present church of the Holy Sepulcher consists of two main sections: on the west the great dome that rises over the commemorative shrine of Our Lord's sepulcher and on the east the church proper with its many adjacent chapels. Every inch is divided up by centuriesold tradition among the Latins, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Syrians and the Copts. Certain areas, however, such as the chapel of the Holy Sepulcher, are common property. The Ethiopians have to be contented with the roof terraces. The Anglicans, through the kindness of the Orthodox, hold services in the so-called chapel of Adam that is below the chapel of Calvary. The long simmering distrust over control of the property has made doubly difficult the attempts at restoration.
The locality of the church within the present walls of the city is no argument against the traditional identification (Jn 19.20), for Jerusalem had different walls at different periods of its history. The so-called Garden Tomb, another site recently claimed to have been that of Jesus' tomb, has no archeological evidence to support it. Finally, it may be noted that specialists as different in outlook as L. H. Vincent, G. H. Dalman and J. Jeremias agreed in localizing Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus in the present church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Bibliography: l. h. vincent and f. m. abel, Jérusalem Nouvelle, v.2 of Jérusalem: Recherches de topographie, d'archéologie et d'histoire, 2 v. (Paris 1912–26) 2:1–300, with plates 12–29. d. baldi, Enchiridion locorum sanctorum (2d ed. Jerusalem 1955). l. h. vincent et al., Il santo sepolcro di Gerusalemme (Bergamo 1949). a. parrot, Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, tr. e. hudson (New York 1957). Bible et Terre Sainte, 55 (1963). l. h. vincent, "Garden Tomb: Histoire d'un Mythe," Revue biblique 34 (1925) 401–431. c. kopp, The Holy Places of the Gospels, tr. r. walls (New York 1963) 374–394. k. j. conant, The Original Buildings at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Cambridge, Mass. 1956). s. de sandoli, Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre: Historical Outline (Jerusalem 1977). m. biddle, The Tomb of Christ (Stroud, Gloucestershire, England 1999).
"Sepulcher, Holy." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sepulcher-holy
"Sepulcher, Holy." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sepulcher-holy
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